Archive for August, 2007

Makna Merdeka 50

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

[I interrupt my weekly serialization of my book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia, to share my thoughts on Merdeka 50. The serialization continues next week.]

Makna Merdeka 50


Merdeka negara! Merdeka bercita!

Bebas negara! Bebas bersuara!

Merdeka bukan hadiah penjajah

Kebebasan insan hasrat Allah.


Alam ku luas, borkat Illahi

Rezki ku Tuhan yang mengsukati.

Laut, gunung, sempadan tanpa ku segani

Gelombang dunia berani ku layari!


Kampong halaman bukan nya sauh

Ingin ku menghilir merantau jauh.

Di mana bumi ku pijak, di sana langit ku junjong

Selagi hati berhajat, cita ku jangan di kandong.


Hidup, bebas, bahagia, hasrat Allah

Pantang celaka lah jika di ubah.

Raja dan menteri mesti mempatuhi

Jangan kau mungkir perentah Illahi.


Rakyat negeri bukan nya kuli

Untok di kerah ka sana sini.

Zaman purba tak akan kembali

Mungkin menteri yang di buang negri!


Renungkan nasib si Idi Amin

Yang Shah Pahlavi pun tak terjamin.

Pemimpim negri mesti menginggati

Rakyat – bukan raja – yang di daulati.


Tidak ku sangka songsang

Anak dagang di negri orang.

Orang kita/orang sana, tidak bermakna.

Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia

Bukan kah itu gesa Laksmana?


Urat ku mendalam di bumi asing

Loghat ku pun ikut sama mengiring

Sambal belacan dah berasa lain

Teras ku tetap Melayu tulin!

Kampong ku jauh beribu batu

Begitu juga kaum sa suku

Kalau di renung hati ku rindu

Mengenang cerita moyang ku dulu.


Anak merantua jangan diigaui

Sepi perpisahan boleh dibatasi.

Bebas! Merdeka! Alangkah murni!

Ku peluk penuh cinta berahi!


M. Bakri Musa

Morgan Hill, California



My translation:

Meaning of Merdeka (Independence) 50


Merdeka to the nation! Merdeka for my ambition!

Freedom of speech! Freedom of thought!

The benevolence of colonials, merdeka is not

Free! Unshackled! That’s the command of the Lord.


My universe is broad, the blessing of God.

I strive, but only He knows my fate and lot.

Oceans, mountains, and boundaries faze me not

The global waves a match for my surfing board.


My village abode is not my tether

The yonder wide world beckons me thither.

Firm on ground, the heavens above I praise

And pray my dream will find its rightful place.


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

That is Allah’s command; His measured kindness.

It is not for kings and rulers to alter

Nor put boundaries to God’s desire.


Blessed with freedom and reason are God’s children

To lords and kings we are never beholden.

The feudal order had long been toppled

Let’s be clear, the sovereign is the people.


Ponder the fate of one Idi Amin

That of Shah Pahlavi was equally grim!

These realities our leaders must heed

“Power to the People!” is the new creed.


Praise the wandering son, our true hero

Heeding the call when the distant wind blows.

This “us” versus “them” makes little sense

True to yourself, that is the essence.

Blessed our forefathers for that lesson.


My roots have deepened in this foreign soil

Affected or not, so too my Western drawl.

The spicy taste of yore has lost its punch

Still, the old Malay can, … lah! In a crunch!


Far across the ocean the old abode beckons

My kith and kind, Oh! They readily come to mind!

As I ponder, the heart grows fonder

Reliving stories of days yonder.


The young has flown, the empty nest silent

Sadness yes, but memories remain vibrant.

Freedom! Merdeka! Such intoxicating beauty!

With fondness and passion, I readily embrace thee.


M. Bakri Mua

Morgan Hill, California

August 2007

What Has Oxford Done?

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

What Has Oxford Done?

Co-written with Din Merican

[First posted on on August 20, 2007]

Both are graduates of Oxford, but what a difference between the two!  What separates them is that elusive quality:  class.  One has it; the other does not.  When you have class, Oxford will bring out the best in you.  When you do not, not even esteemed Oxford can do much for you.

One is a crown prince, a sultan-to-be whose recent wedding warmed the hearts of Malaysians for its elegant simplicity and regal restraint.  His eloquent speeches inspire the young and old alike; they enthusiastically embrace his enlightened vision of Malaysia.  He appeals to their idealism and decency, and they in turn respond in kind.  His understated passion and cool rationality resonate with the citizens.  He elevates the tone of our civil discourse.  In short, Raja Nazrin is “Yang Teramat Mulia” (“The Most Esteemed”) personified.

The other is a neophyte political operative, with grand pretensions of being the next Prime Minister.  For now however, he is till struggling just to have the title (but not the qualities) of a “Yang Berhormat” (“The Honorable”) that goes with being a Member of Parliament.  His obscenely ostentatious wedding a few years back dragged on for days, with multiple ceremonies.  Its extravagance easily outmatched the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, minus of course the royal elegance.  Today he is again indulging in excesses; this time hurling insults at Malaysians and assaulting their sense of decency.

In his speeches to his followers in UMNO Youth, he instigates and brings out their dark side.  To him, the Mat Rempits, those midnight marauders of unemployable youths who terrorize our streets, represent the best of our community.  He champions them.  Like them, his trade in stock is taunting and provoking, with undisguised racist undertone.  Lately he resorts to simian references; no surprise as he is surrounded daily by the opportunist monkeys in the jungle that is UMNO.  This fraud of a leader coarsens our public debates, dragging them to his barnyard level.

We humbly apologize to Raja Nazrin for this jarring juxtaposition of images.  We are comforted by the fact that a Prince Charming beside a toad will never lose his regal bearing.  A toad beside a prince however, will make its warts all the more revolting to behold, and its croaking unbearably grating.

While the constant croaking of a toad may be harsh on the ears, the repeated racist rhetoric of a leader, genuine or fake, can have devastating consequences.  We would have thought that this would be obvious; we need not remind ourselves of the ghastly tragedy of May 1969.

This wet-behind-the-ears pseudo-leader is oblivious of these dangers.  Born years after those horrific days in 1969, he did not live through the calamity that nearly ripped our nation apart.  It would be unlikely for him to have learned that part of our history at Oxford.  It is also painfully obvious that no senior leaders in his party have taken him aside to apprise this uncouth young man of that blemish in our history.  This glaring omission speaks volumes of the caliber of UMNO’s current leadership.

Elusive Quality of Class

While “class” is an elusive quality and thus difficult to define, nonetheless we know it when we see it, to borrow the phrase of an American jurist.  We would definitely know it when it is not there, hence the dismissive, “No class!”

            Equally revealing is what a particular culture considers to be a class act or whom that society views as “classy.”  Rest assured that a “class act” by a mafia don is anything but in a civilized society.

            Nelson Mandela has class; his nemesis the buffoon P. W. Botha did not.  Many attribute “class” to breeding.  If by that they mean genetic endowment, we demur, as that would imply that the attribute is not teachable.  It also implies the acceptance of a certain degree of fatalism:  either one is lucky to be born with the attribute, or one is not.

If the term “breeding” refers to upbringing, then we are in agreement.  This does not mean that those in the upper crust of society would automatically have “class.”  We have many uncouth presidents and leaders.  Then there was the lowly born Mahatma Gandhi whose class act of non-violence shamed the crusty British establishment.

            We would have thought that being the son of a career diplomat would ensure good upbringing.  After all the profession of diplomacy itself is the epitome of class, as encapsulated in the expression, “being diplomatic.”  We also would have expected some of the father’s classiness to rub off on the son.  That it did not forces us to look for other explanations.

The Malay expression Kurang Ajar (or Kurang ‘Jar, K ‘J) is the idiomatic translation of the phrase “No class.”  Literally it means, “Not adequately taught,” as by the parents and other elders in the village.  Stated another way:  uncouth.

In Malay culture however, that phrase means much more:  it is the most damning insult.  In the words of Usman Awang in his poem Kurang Ajar, it is sebuah perkataan yang paling ditakuti untok bangsa kita yang pemalu) (the most feared phrase by our race.)

That aside, the literal translation is quite meaningful as it points out possible ways of remedying the deficiency.  Thus, “Teach your children well!” as the song advises, is one useful way.  There is no advantage in being born to a diplomat’s family if your parents have not provided you the necessary tutelage.  Or, as is increasingly becoming common among Malaysians, they delegate this important parental responsibility to maids.

Malaysia imports thousands of these maids annually.  As only the affluent could afford these “servants,” as they are referred to in Malaysian homes, we are now seeing a generation of the elite that has grown up kurang ajar.  Many are jockeying for leadership of the nation.  We shudder to think of the social and political implications.

Toxic Combination of Greed and Kurang Ajar

As obnoxious as this kurang ‘jar (K ‘J) young pseudo-leader is, the situation is worse.  He is also aggressively ambitious, barely concealing his greed for money and lust for power.  He fancies himself an “investment banker,” but his primary indulgence is stripping off valuable assets from government-linked companies.  ECM Libra’s (the company he is associated with) well documented plundering of GLCs is a ready example.  He also grandly aspires to be Prime Minister by age 40!  It is this combination of greed and kurang ajar that is highly toxic.

This K ‘J pseudo-leader’s political career in UMNO is consumed with endless Machiavellian maneuverings in the blind pursuit of his ambition.  None of his tricks are original of course; they are primarily the familiar “sucking up to your superiors,” or variations thereof, including the most extreme form:  marrying the boss’s daughter.

If perchance the particular leader this K ‘J character is backing suddenly stumbles, he shrewdly shifts his target.  His tactics and underlying strategies however, remain the same.  After all, innovative imagination is not his forte!

Thus now that Anwar Ibrahim is out of power, this K ‘J character readily heaps scorn upon him.  Earlier when he thought that Anwar might dramatically resurrect himself upon his release from prison, this K ‘J was the first to greet Anwar at his home on the pretext of expediting his passport application.  Had Anwar remained the Deputy Prime Minister, this K ‘J would probably go after Anwar’s daughter instead!

Meanwhile supplicating supporters of this K ‘J are busy groveling to him; like leader, like followers.  One particularly sycophantic subordinate went so far and without any trace of modesty referred to this K ‘J character as UMNO’s Beckham!  This sycophant missed the salient fact that Beckham’s talent excites the crowd; K ‘J’s is to incite them.

Along the same vein, a tabloid columnist gushes in quoting an “anonymous” UMNO insider who likens this K ‘J to a young Mahathir.  Laughable!  Her groveling piece reveals more about herself than her subject:  a drooling lapdog ready to lick her master at the snap of the finger.

We are heartened that some are beginning to see through the fraud of this K ’J.  Zahar Hashim, head of Petaling Jaya Selatan UMNO, likened this K ‘J to the devil haunting UMNO Youth.  Zahar is a retired army officer; meaning he has guts to go with his self-discipline.  It would be tough to borak (hoodwink) your way through this former soldier.

The most effective way to teach these K ‘J types a lesson is to land them a tight slap on their face.  Many we presume would like to do just that, especially Zahar.  While we cannot do so literally, we are metaphorically slapping his face with our piece.

We have unequivocally declared here that Raja Nazrin is a class act, while this other K ‘J character is just that:  kurang ‘jar.  In so clearly drawing the line, we are also explicitly stating our values of what we consider worthy of praise and emulation versus what we should condemn and discourage.

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(Din Merican is a senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace. He was recently named an adjunct professor of global business strategy and a board member of the newly formed University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. Din Merican had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bank Negara Malaysia and Sime Darby.)  He can be reached at:

Malaysia and the Myth of ‘Tanah Melayu’

Friday, August 24th, 2007

Malaysia and the Myth of ‘Tanah Melayu’

(Part I)

By Farish A. Noor

We are sustained by myths only as long as they are empowering, inspiring, instrumental, and serve our interests; yet when those very same myths provide us with little else than the false comfort of an unreconstructed nostalgia for a past that never existed, then they turn into cages that imprison us for life. The myth of a unique European ‘civilizational genius’ has only helped to parochialize Europe even more; the staid discourse of ‘Asian values’ merely denies the fact that Asian civilizations would not have developed as they did without contact with the outside world; and the myth of a pure and uninterrupted development of Indo-Aryan culture has only opened the way for the rise of right-wing Hindutva Fascists in the Indian subcontinent.  Notwithstanding their claims to standing proud and tall, the demagogues who utter such pedestrian nonsense remain stunted, as their logic, on the stage of global history: testimony to the claim that those whose confidence is founded in stilts can only remain handicapped for life.

A nation that is grown up is one that is mature enough to realize that it can dispense with such myths, particularly when the honeyed nectar of mythology reveals itself as nothing more than poison. Yet poison has become our draught, and this nation of ours is ailing to the core by now.

            The symptoms of the malady are all around us these days and we see them readily enough: As the asinine debate over a rap rendition of the national anthem turns bilious and takes on an increasingly racialized mien, forcing all sides to retreat to the hallowed sanctuary of communal and racial identity, the nation’s attention has been diverted from truly pressing issues concerning the economy and the spate of potentially explosive legal cases currently being fought out in the courts of the land.

            The vernacular press assumes the role of champions of each respective community, and racial overtones are clearly seen and felt in the language of national politics. Yet nobody points to the real issue at stake, even if we need to discuss the rap video rendered by the young Wee Meng Chee, which surely should be this: If a young Malaysian has seen fit to deliver his tirade against all that he sees wrong in the country in terms that are racially-determined, is this not a reflection of the racialised and divisive politics that already reigns in Malaysia, courtesy of the ruling National Front coalition led by UMNO in the first place? The racialised logic that rests in Meng Chee’s rap is only a mirror reflection of the racialised politics already at work in Malaysia already. So are we Malaysians so ashamed of ourselves that we can no longer look at ourselves squarely in the face and accept the monstrosity that stands before us today?

            Yet the editorials in the vernacular press are baying for blood and Meng Chee, they insist, must be brought to book. Amidst this furore of chest-thumping theatrics and protestations of communal insult and outrage, we hear the communitarians among us blare out again and again: ‘Jangan tunduk’, ‘Defend our pride’, ‘kurang ajar’ and so forth.  No, reason and rational debate are no longer welcomed in Malaysia that is ‘truly Asia’, and this homeland for some will demand its pound of flesh from others. Meng Chee is not the first and certainly will not be the last to suffer from the slighted sensitivities of those whose comfort zones and essentialized identities are sacrosanct and inviolable. Previously others have also been brought to the village tribunal of the mob for allegedly insulting race and religion as well. (Here I write from bitter experience myself.)

            Yet the irony of ironies behind this tableau of flaring tempers and heated emotions is the skewered (and now silenced) appeal for us, as one nation, to remain united and to respect the diversity among us. The sonorous voice of the state trembles and falters as it mouths this language of double-speak that fails to convince: On the one hand we maintain the lie – and it is a lie, let us admit that at least – that this is a happy land of multiculturalism and diversity where every shade of colour in the pluralist rainbow is represented and has its place. On the other hand the very same mouth that utters these sweet platitudes tells us that not far beneath the diversity and pluralism that rests on the scratched surface of Malaysia is the understated understanding that some communities – or rather one in particular – deserves a better place in the sun; namely, the Bumiputeras.


            Have we become a schizophrenic nation blissfully unaware of the contradictions that have become so heartbreakingly apparent to others? Meng Chee’s unpardonable ‘offence’ was to have slighted the pride and identity of one community that claims to be part of Malaysia and yet remains strangely aloof from the rest of us. The great act of treason he is accused of committing – offending the dignity of a specific community and its creed – rings hollow when we consider the bile and vitriol that has emanated from the leaders of that community itself, ranging from the drawing of daggers in public to the language of blood and belonging that has been repeated, time and again, by its leaders. The soapbox orators of UMNO and its Youth Wing in particular have demanded that others respect the special rights and privileges of the Malays, while forgetting the fact that for the past five decades we – Malaysians – have had to put up with their own brand of small town politics incessantly.

            Yet this discourse of communal pride and identity is sustained by one crucial myth: that this land of ours is a competed and contested territory where two nations are in constant competition: The nation-state called ‘Malaysia’ and the mythical land called ‘Tanah Melayu’.


Tanah Melayu Revisited

The skin of the demagogue is ever so sensitive, so fragile, in the face of the sound argument. As soon as the mention of a contrary idea is made, it bristles and reacts; the hand reaches for the keris; the foot steps on the soapbox; the mouth opens to utter the word ‘May’ to be followed by the cryptic number thirteen…

            Perhaps the sensitivity we see can be accounted for by the fact that the corpus of postcolonial ethno-nationalist politics in this country is sustained by the singular myth that this patch of God’s earth was and is a land that ‘belongs’ to one community in particular. From that myth issues forth the other related claims to special privileges, special rights, special allocations and entitlements.

            The myth is sustained by the idea put forth that prior to the coming-into-being of this nation called ‘Malaysia’ there was once this mythical land called ‘Tanah Melayu’. Yet the historian would be hard pressed indeed to find a source to back this claim, for the embarrassing thing about our epic histories and hikayats of old is that there is scarcely a mention of the word. For years – if not more than a decade by now – I have been looking for this mythical land so loved and cherished by the young bloods and hotspurs of UMNO, yet I have never discovered it. The Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (written in stages between the late 17th to 18th centuries) does not mention it; nor does the Hikayat Patani, the Taj-us-Salatin (Mahkota Segala Raja-Raja), the Hikayat Shah Mardan, Hikayat Inderaputera, Silsilah Bugis, Hikayat Pasai, Hikayat Siak, etc.

            And finally one day while trawling through the flea markets and antique bazaars of Europe I came across a dull and worn-out copper coin with the word ‘Tanah Melayu’ stamped on it, dating to the late 19th century.

Having taken it home, I looked it up in the reference books I had only to discover that it was one of those hybrid coins of dubious worth that were used in the trade between European colonial companies then stationed in Singapore and Malacca with Malay traders from the (then weakened) Malay sultanates on the Peninsula. Used as loose coinage in commercial transactions that were at best unequal and at worst exploitative to the Malay traders then, the coins had a decidedly counterfeit feel to them, and while registering the lightness of its weight in the palm of my hand, the thought came to me: That this coin, with the word ‘Tanah Melayu’ stamped on it in Jawi alphabet, sums up the irony of the past and the painful realities of colonialism then. The Malay kingdoms had been colonised, sidelined and diminished, and all that was given back to the Malays was a dull copper coin with the myth of ‘Tanah Melayu’ stamped on it in so casual a manner.

            Colonialism had robbed the natives of Asia of their lands, their history and culture; introduced the divisive politics of race and ethnicity as part of the ideology of divide and rule, and had created a plural economy where the colonial masters reigned supreme. In the decades and centuries to come the colonized subjects would be doubly colonized again as they internalized the logic and epistemology of Empire, thereby completing the work of the colonial masters who had colonized their lands, stolen their resources, but not altered their minds.

            Today, as race-based ethno-nationalist politics prevails in Malaysia and while our communities remain divided along sectarian race and religion-based lines, we lament the loss of the Malaysian ideal that was perhaps never there in the first place. The hounding of bloggers, activists and students like Meng Chee is a reminder that the frontiers of race, religion and ethnicity remain as permanent scars that have disfigured the landscape of our nation, apparently permanently.

And as the virulent voices in the vernacular editorials of the local press call for vengeance against Meng Chee, perhaps they should ask themselves this simple and honest question: For half a century now the so-called ‘non-Malays’ of Malaysia have been asked to attest their loyalty and commitment to the Malaysian idea and ideal; to relegate their cultural history to the background; to adopt the national language, culture and even dress in an attempt to assimilate to the reality of life in Malaysia.

            But tell me, dear reader, how many Malays in Malaysia are truly Malaysian; and how many Malays think of themselves as Malaysian and are committed to that very same ideal of a Malaysian Malaysia? Are the Malays Malaysians who live in Malaysia? Or are the Malays still living in the mythological land of ‘Tanah Melayu’, an idea dreamt of by Orientalist scholars and administrators during the colonial era, as a worthless compensation to a people who had been colonized and whose pride was reduced to the worth of a copper coin?

           End of Part 1.

Prof. Farish A. Noor is a historian and political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin and affiliated professor to Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta and the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University of Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site


Towards A Competitive Malaysia #20

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Chapter 5:  Consequences of Progress and Prosperity

We all like to be better off today then we were a few years ago, and our children to be better off than we are. The issue is not with the concept of progress and prosperity, rather with their content.

Economists measure prosperity by the GDP, per capita income, and other such indices because those are the easiest to measure and compare (although there are still complexities associated). By and large they correlate with what most people view as progress and prosperity. Citizens of nations with high per capita income generally live better and longer than those in countries with low figures. The Ethiopians with their low per capita income and GDP lead a miserable existence as compared to the Swiss with their generous per capita income. The Ethiopians are less healthy, less educated, and have shorter life span and plenty to worry about as they go through their daily existence.

            The World Bank divides nations into four categories based on their per capita income: low, low-middle, high-middle, and high-income countries. Within each group, the per capita income loses its discriminative value. The Canadians and Swedes have much lower per capita income than the Americans, but few Canadians or Swedes would envy the Americans. To make a finer distinction, the Bank introduces the concept of “Development Diamond” by looking at four socioeconomic indicators: life expectancy, school enrolment, access to potable water, and per capita GDP. These are then plotted along four axes at right angle to each other, thus giving an easy graphic representation. The bigger and more symmetrical the diamond, the better is the overall quality of life of the citizens.1

The GDP figures, widely used, have their own limitations. They do not differentiate between the economic values of reconstructing of New Orleans damaged by Katrina, to building a new city. Similarly, the value of mothers taking care of their young at home, which is a valuable and significant investment in the nation’s future, does not add to the GDP. If she works at a factory and employs a maid, then the values of her work and that of her maid’s service count toward the GDP. Then there is the classic folly of the birth of a calf adding to the GDP (as future producer of milk and beef), while the birth of a human baby reduces the per capita GDP (by increasing the denominator).

            Those broad considerations aside, there is still no universal agreement on what constitutes progress, or the good life. To Kelantan Malays, the good life would be when they are assured of a slot in heaven. A leader who promised them that would get their votes. To the likes of Osama bin Ladin, the good life is the promised virgins in the Hereafter. To the average American, the good life is when he or she can have a decent home in a peaceful neighborhood, and good medical care without bankrupting the family.

The Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen argues passionately in his book (Development as Freedom) that human freedom should be the primary end and principle means of development.2 Freedom in all its dimensions: political, economic, in opportunities and in security. Freedom in one arena feeds on freedom in other areas. He makes the profound observation that no famine (or viewed differently, absence of freedom from privation) has ever taken place in a functioning democracy.

Development, Sen continues, must go beyond the accumulation of wealth, GDP growth, and other related variables. It must ultimately relate to and be concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy. The founding fathers of America said it best: In the pursuit of happiness.

Culture plays a big role in defining what the good life is, the content of the concept of progress. In my book Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I define progress as improvements in the ability of a society to take care of the basic needs of its members in terms of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as in ensuring that citizens are allowed to develop to their fullest potential.3 There are two points to this definition. One, it implies an ongoing process. There is no end point; you can always improve on your conditions. Two, there is still space for cultural interpretations as to what constitutes “basic needs” and “full potential.” In feudal societies you are deemed to have a full life if you have faithfully obeyed your lord and master. In many Third World societies, that is still true.

Cultural relativism notwithstanding, there are some sets of values and aspirations that are universally (or nearly so) shared. As stated in Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington’s book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, these include the premise that:

• Life is better than death

• Health is better than sickness

• Liberty is better than slavery

• Prosperity is better than poverty

• Education is better than ignorance

• Justice is better than injustice.4

Fanatical suicide bombers might take exception to the first statement; likewise hypochondriacs to the second. As for liberty over slavery, not too long ago slavery was accepted as an expression of God’s grand design, at least in the religion of the oppressors. Nobody bothered to ask the slaves.

            As for education being better than ignorance, I once met an Education Minister from Brunei; he saw no merit in spending his nation’s vast wealth on schools or otherwise educating the masses. You only raised their expectations, he reasoned, and then they would become uppity and start complaining about their government. Before you knew it, you would have an uprising! That Brunei official was not alone. Many, especially in the Arab world, still hold the same view towards their women.

These fringe elements excepted, most accept the preceding six statements. Regardless of how we define progress, it has its own problems; some anticipated, others not. At times, mired in the problems of the day, we conveniently forget about the challenges and tribulations of the past. We wistfully long for the good old days when things were presumably much better, at least according to our now selective memory.

I illustrate this with the invention of the automobile, which most would regard as definite progress. It revolutionized the way we do almost everything. Even the most virulent Luddite would admit that cars and trucks are much better, superior, more efficient, and yes, even less polluting than the old horse-drawn carts. Yes, cars are noisy and spout out greenhouse gases. Every year thousands are killed or maimed by this contraption, and vast tracts of fertile land are being paved over to accommodate it.

Imagine if cars had not been invented and we were still stuck with horse-drawn carriages. The streets (and we) would by now be buried under horse excrement, with the associated flies and stench. Our cities would be inhabitable. Instead of greenhouse gases, we would have methane oozing out of every hole in the ground.

By the same token, those same dynamics that give rise to that remarkable progress in producing cars are also equally effective in managing the associated problems. Fatalities associated with automobile accidents are considerably lower in the First World than in the developing world because of improvements in safety and other designs. American cars are also equipped with catalytic converters that markedly reduce pollution. Meanwhile the air in many Third World cities are laden with airborne lead because of the still widespread use of leaded gasoline and highly polluting inefficient engines.

The problems associated with or created by progress would be more effectively solved through more progress, not less. These problems could be physical, social, personal, and moral. I will deal with each separately.

Next:  The Physical Price of Progress

Letter To A Young Malay Professional

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

Letter To A Young Malay Professional

Co-written with Din Merican

(First posted on on August 13, 2007)

Dear Khairul:

We are touched that you feel comfortable asking us for advice, considering that we have not met you except virtually through this wonderful medium of the Internet.  Yes, modern technology is bringing the world together, reducing distance to irrelevance.

We congratulate you on your MBA.  It is undoubtedly a major milestone in your life journey, besides being your entry into the world of business.  The analytical and other skills you have learned are applicable beyond the field of management.  Management after all is concerned with getting things done through people, and about leadership.

You are also now well prepared to benefit from your future experiences.  Experience is a great teacher, but only to those well prepared, otherwise you risk drawing the wrong lessons.  As that great surgeon William Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame observed, some surgeons repeat the same mistake a hundred times and call that experience.  Ask their patients what they think of that!

We applaud you for another reason.  You had the humility and wisdom to recognize early that your bachelor’s degree was just the beginning and not the end of your intellectual journey.  Far too many feel otherwise; they presume to know everything upon getting that parchment paper.  They stop learning.  A presumptuous few even feel that they could lead a billion-dollar corporation or advise the prime minister just because they received their first degree from a prestigious university.  Then there is preening graduate who mistook his in-laws’ adoration as an endorsement to lead the nation!

Our culture contributes much to these inflated expectations.  We generously refer to a leader with only a first degree as an “Islamic scholar.”  Never mind that he has nothing original to his credit.  Another with a general degree from a provincial university is proudly touted as a “British-trained economist.”  There is not even a trace of embarrassment with that extravagant assertion.  Our culture is generous to a fault!

It may surprise you that one measure of quality for American universities is the percentage of their graduates who go on to graduate and professional schools.  Your professors have imbued in you the right values by your furthering your studies.  You are ahead of many of your compatriots, even those from august institutions who somehow missed being educated during their undergraduate years.


Awesome Responsibility of Advising

We are uncomfortable with dispensing personal advice; the burden of responsibility weighs heavily on us.  Once when one of us was advising his nieces and nephews, his mother gently admonished them, “Do not listen too much to your uncle, you may end up marrying a foreigner and leaving the country!”

While we may be shy in giving you personal advice, we are not at all hesitant in recollecting our experiences, the paths we had chosen, and the choices we have made in the hope that they might be useful to you.  Both of us have similar aspirations and perspectives for our people and country.  We are comfortable with where we are.  We may not have nor do we aspire for the trappings of success normally associated with our culture.  In relating our experiences, that is our caveat for you.

Both of us are of the same generation and gone through similar experiences growing up.  Our paths diverged dramatically only in adulthood.  Din hails from rural Yan, Kedah, and lived for many years in Alor Setar before proceeding to Penang Free School.  His detractors refer to him derisively as a mamak.  Bakri is still at heart the kampong boy from the royal town of Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan, base of the matrimonial adat perpateh society.  That gives special meaning to the term “kampong.”  It is less a geographic description, more a state of mind, as in “plebian.”  Thus in addressing members of the royalty, we refer to ourselves as “Patek hamba!” (Slaves).

Din attended the University of Malaya in the early 1960s.  It was a reflection of the caliber of that institution at the time that when he went for his MBA in Washington, DC, he excelled.  He returned and worked for such outstanding personalities as Tun Ghazalie Shafie at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tun Ismail Ali at Bank Negara and later, Sime Darby, the eminent economist Agoes Salim of Bank Pertanian, Tun Mahathir when he was at FIMA, Tun Tan Siew Sin (Sime Darby), and Indonesia’s dynamic entrepreneur Aburizal Bakrie and his top manager Tanri Abeng.

Bakri went to Canada and became a surgeon.  After a stint in private practice there, he yearned for something more than having a dog, station wagon, and a house in the suburb, and decided to return.  However, after nearly three years in the service of the Malaysian government, he discovered that he had fewer headaches when he stopped banging his head against the bureaucratic wall.  So he left.

That brief description does not do justice to Bakri’s tenure in Malaysia.  It was his most satisfying experience professionally, in part for the privilege of having participated in training some of the nation’s future eminent doctors and surgeons.  Bakri also remembers fondly Tan Sri Majid Ismail, the pioneering orthopedic surgeon and later, legendary Director-General.  Unfortunately, Tan Sri retired soon after Bakri came aboard.  Earlier while Bakri was still in Canada, the late Ungku Omar who was then Dean of Medicine at UKM, encouraged Bakri to pursue research.  Sadly Ungku Omar died before Bakri returned.  His career might have taken a different path had he came back sooner.  However, we do not speculate on paths not pursued.

Our commonality is our outstanding mentors early in our careers.  They set the bar high, and quickly shaped our personal values and work culture.  Luck played a role, but we also chose to be under such exemplary individuals.

We chose carefully for another reason.  We did not feel that we could influence much less change the surroundings so early in our careers.  We never underestimated the inertia of the status quo.  Once we had some solid experiences, only then did we become assertive.  Where we could not change, or if we felt we were compromising ourselves too much by staying, we did not hesitate to leave.


Choose Carefully

Be prudent in your early career choice.  Join a multinational corporation, and your talent and hard work would be nurtured and well rewarded.  Pick the civil service, and you would quickly acquire the bodek culture, the obnoxious habit of “sucking up” to your superiors.  Be active in UMNO Youth, and soon you would be adept at racial taunting and obscenely brandishing your keris.

We see too many bright and idealistic young Malays who are intent on changing UMNO only to be changed by it instead.  To us, that is a tragedy; to them, an advancement.

We look in dismay at many young Malay professionals rushing to climb the administrative ladder at the expense of their professional development.  When Bakri taught young surgeons he insisted that they first concentrated on polishing their surgical skills and publishing a few papers before being distracted by rapid administrative promotions.  Once they took on administrative chores they would be literally consumed by the bureaucracy.

Politics is another great seducer of young Malay talent.  We look askance at one neurosurgeon, still a rarity for our community, readily giving up his hard-earned career for opposition politics!

            It is praiseworthy that our brightest and talented aspire to lead the nation.  However, before they contemplate that, they should first prove themselves by excelling in their chosen profession or enterprise.  Anything less and they would be disrespecting their fellow citizens.

We tell our adult children that they would have to create for their employers at least twice their salary in the value of work:  one half to cover their pay and the other half for other overhead.  Anything less and you would be a burden to your employer, or, as kampong folks would say, makan gaji buta (lit. Eating a blind salary).  In our faith, that would also be haram.

No one can guarantee you your job security; only your clients and customers can do that.  Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) notwithstanding, the world does not owe you a living; our leaders are misleading our young to have them think otherwise.  There is no substitute for competence, integrity, and hard work.

Finally, you can make a difference.  The individuals Din and Bakri served were driven by their strong conviction that they could make a difference.  And they did.  There were also individuals of exceptional competence and uncompromising integrity whose personal examples spoke louder then their words.  They demonstrated best the leadership ideals of our prophet, s.a.w.,:  quadrat hasanah (leadership through personal example).

            Again, congratulations on your MBA, and best wishes in your chosen career.

M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican

August 2007

(Din Merican is a senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace. He was recently named an adjunct professor of global business strategy and a board member of the newly formed University of Cambodia , Phnom Penh. Din Merican had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bank Negara Malaysia and Sime Darby.)

We Do Not Own, Nor Are We Owned By History

Friday, August 17th, 2007

We Do Not Own, Nor Are We Owned By History

By Farish A. Noor

Perhaps it says something about the human condition today that so many of us feel the need to belong to, as well as to own a part of, history. Living in the postmodern world of late industrial capitalism where more and more of us have become the denizens of a shapeless and homogenous urban landscape worldwide, the sweet nectar of nostalgia seems all too tempting and simply too easy to sample.

This fact was brought home to me recently during a public talk in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when a speaker from the audience spoke of her anxiety and need to preserve what she regarded as the grand history of her ‘race’ and ‘nation’. Lamenting the idea that her child may end up one day as yet another statistic in the relentless march of global capital and consumer culture, she spoke about the need to emphasize her ‘Chinese-ness’ and to retain links to the past of Chinese civilization; which, she added, was four thousand years olld.

Yet such rhetoric is not new to me. How often have I encountered similar arguments among Muslims and Hindus all across Asia, who claim that they too belong to grand civilizations thousands of years old, and that they saw the need to preserve in them a space where this culture and civilization could be kept alive? More often than not I was taken to the sites of great and magnificent mosques, temples, palaces and other architectural wonders to be shown how great the Chinese, Indian and Muslim civilizations were. And of course the greatness of Western civilization is rammed down our throats on a daily basis thanks to the hegemonic impact of Western popular culture, which reminds us time and again of the greatness of the Greeks and Romans.

Now take a step back from this froth and sentiment and one will notice a glaring error hiding in the premises of these arguments. For a start, it would be nonsensical to state that any Chinese person today has or had anything to do with the cultural achievements of China in the past; any more than any Muslim, Hindu or Christian today has contributed an iota to the development of the civilizations they hold so dear.

It is interesting to note that we who live in the immediate present have no problems whatsoever taking credit for what was done by our ancestors hundreds of years ago, as if somehow the accumulated credit for human labor can be passed down from one generation to another like capital gaining interest in the bank. Odder still is the fact that this logic is seldom reversed, for Christians, Muslims and Hindus today would not want to take responsibility for the mistakes and outrages committed by their very same ancestors long ago.

Furthermore it is almost comical to note how this recourse to nostalgia often harps back on the achievements of singular individuals who may not have acted with the interests of others or posterity in mind. Muslim apologists talk about the greatness of Muslim Sultans and Emperors, oblivious to the fact that if they were living in the days of the great Muslim empires of the past they would probably be playing the lowly role of serfs and peasants, to be stepped on and exploited by the very same Great Sultans they so admire today. Likewise apologists for China’s great imperial past forget that the greatness of China was meant primarily for the Emperor and the ruling elite, and not for the ordinary Chinese masses: Some may look to the Forbidden Palace in Peking as proof of China’s past grandeur, but the Forbidden Palace was precisely that – an elite enclave that was forbidden to millions of ordinary Chinese. The same applies for the great temples, forts and castles of the Christian West and Hindu India. So why this love of great rulers and greatness in general?

Related to this is the other anomaly that I still cannot fathom. Living in this multi-culti age where the emphasis is on ethnic and racial differences rather than similarities, we seem drawn to our respective pasts that we are told are ‘ours’ by virtue of us being born as what we are. So Muslim youth are told to admire and revere Muslim history, Hindu youth are told to venerate the Hindu past, Chinese youth are told to be proud of their Chinese history, etc.

Does history own us to such an extent that we are trapped by the accidental and contingent factors of the past forever? Is a Muslim determined by the actions of his ancestors to the extent that he or she can only imagine a Muslim past, present and future? Or can he or she not valorize, admire and acknowledge the achievements of others as well? This question of course cuts across the ethnic-racial-religious divide and can be applied to all and sundry: Can’t a Chinese admire things Hindu; can’t a European admire things Chinese; and can’t a Hindu admire things Christian, etc?

Much that passes as history today, we should remember, has been the result of radical contingencies put into order at the hands of official historians who have added a touch of determinism where there perhaps wasn’t any. The grand histories of the so-called ‘Great civilizations’ read so neatly as grand narratives simply because the alternative voices that pointed to a plethora of other alternative endings have all but been wiped out. This gives such grand narratives their consistency and standing as canonical texts. Yet this appearance of solidity before the ravages of time is illusory, and worse still turns history into mere propaganda: self-fulfilling prophesies of greatness once realized and which will be reactivated once again.

Can we ever escape the lure of such attractive nostalgia and accept the fact that each and everyone one of us today is an orphaned child of the modern age, divorced from our ancestors who live in that foreign country called the past? The step can be taken, but not before we accept the fact that we are, all of us, residents of the present world whose own personal histories date back only to our births and no further.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the research site.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #19

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007


Chapter 4:  On Being Competitive (Cont’d)

Porter’s Business Competitive Index (BCI)

This microeconomic environment is the focus of Porter’s other extended study. He now has voluminous data on companies and industries in over 100 countries, ranging from poor African to First World countries.11 He surveyed senior business leaders in these countries and asked them to evaluate the basic factor issues as outlined in his earlier diamond model. He then estimated the “Business Competitive Index” (BCI) of that country. At the company level, there were questions as to the nature of the competitive advantage, spending on research and development, extent of branding and reliance on professional management, willingness to delegate authority, and the use of technology. The questions relating to national business climate queried matters relating to the factors of production (availability of capital, quality of human resources), as well as the state of the infrastructure, both physical and administrative.

Porter found that the BCI accounted for an astounding 83 percent of the variations in the economic performances between the countries. Being statistical studies, no inference could be made regarding causation. The high per capita GDP correlating with good schools and universities may be the effect, not the cause. When a country is rich it can afford to spend more on and thus have a better education system instead of the other way round of good schools causing the country to be rich.

The center now has data over five years and certain conclusions can be confidently drawn. One, for effective development, it is not enough to have sound macroeconomic policies, for if the microenvironment in which businesses operate is not conducive, the nation will not reap the maximal benefit. Two, these factors are all interrelated; they must be well coordinated for optimal results. The government may invest heavily in developing its human capital by building good schools and universities, but if its industries were not equipped to absorb those well-trained graduates, they will be wasted. Those under- and unemployed graduates represent a tremendous waste of precious human resources. Worse, they could also create their own social problems as a consequence of their frustrations. Or, these educational institutions would then serve as nothing more than talent factories for the developed countries as these graduates emigrate seeking better opportunities, as seen in India.

At another level, a country may have a well thought out privatization policy, but if the microenvironment in which these privatized companies operate were less than optimal—lack of professional management, political interference, undemanding customers—these enterprises would quickly deteriorate. They would then have to be re-nationalized, and an otherwise sensible policy would now have to be retracted in the face of public pressure. Malaysia is replete with such examples, from the national airline to public utilities.

The good news is that for the past few years Malaysia has improved its competitive standing as evaluated by Porter’s group. It suffered badly post-1997 but has now recovered. In the last (2003–04) survey, Malaysia stood at 27th, ahead of such European countries as Poland and Greece. Singapore is the only ASEAN nation ahead of Malaysia at being the 9th position.

When Malaysia was at its “factor driven stage” in the 1960s and 70s, the challenge was how to move beyond the competitive advantage based on cheap commodities. Malaysia could have developed industries based on those commodities and moved up the value chain by providing greater “added value” to the products exported, instead of only the raw materials. It could have developed an industry that would take full advantage of the versatile and resilient properties of natural rubber especially in extreme conditions. It could concentrate producing tires not for the mass market where synthetic rubber has a competitive price advantage, rather specialized ones for jet planes, heavy equipment, and sports cars, and manufacturing shock absorbers for earthquake proofing buildings. It could do the same thing with tin, as discussed earlier. Those niche markets are highly profitable.

Additionally, through biogenetic engineering, Malaysia could use rubber trees not only to produce the latex but also valuable proteins, as with the success of scientists at the Rubber Research Institute to produce transgenic rubber plants that carry the genes for the human blood protein, albumin.12 Imagine getting this important product from a tree instead of a blood donor, eliminating the risks for blood-borne diseases.

Similarly with the lumber industry, instead of exporting raw logs, export their high-value end products like finished furniture and engineered wooden trusses. Imagine the increase in value, apart from the expanded job opportunities.

One would think that where nature had generously endowed a country with abundant natural wealth like oil and gas, its people should enjoy high living standards. Yet when we look at Iraq and Iran, their oil bounties are more curse than blessing.

This “curse of abundance,” a country squandering its bountiful natural riches, is brought on by many factors.13 First, as the country is rich, it automatically invites interests from the powerful. America would not particularly care to liberate Iraq if all it had were barren sand. With foreign interests comes mischief in many forms, including invasion. Second, that wealth encourages the development of a strong state and a domineering leader. It would not be long before that leader becomes corrupt, confusing the state treasury with his private bank. The Sultan of Brunei has this particular difficulty. Third, such massive wealth does not encourage leaders and citizens to develop alternative skills. They are content living off their natural wealth. The Arabs and Brunei Malays are ready examples.

Malaysia has its broad goals and major policies mostly right. It is committed to expansion of foreign trade and attracting foreign investments. It has the right macro policies, as exemplified by its excellent infrastructures (telecommunications, highways, ports, and airports) and heavy investment in education. Malaysia is now rectifying the damage to its judicial system and addressing corruption and the need for greater transparency. It is trying, however awkwardly, to give its citizens greater freedom in order to encourage creativity.

It is at the microenvironment that Malaysia fails miserably. Companies still have difficulties securing the necessary permits to recruit much-needed foreign talent. Other hoops put up by local bureaucrats can be equally daunting as those with enterprises in the ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) would attest.

To launch into its next trajectory of development, Malaysia must reexamine its assumptions and policies, both at the macro and micro levels. That will be the focus of the rest of my book. While we are all for progress and prosperity, nonetheless there are consequences inherent with such changes. The next chapter will dwell on some of those.

Next Chapter 5:  Consequences of Progress and Prosperity

Decoupling Governmental Appointments From Party Positions

Sunday, August 12th, 2007

(First posted on August 6, 2007)

The recent cabinet decision to have ministers and other politicians in government give up their leadership positions in sports organizations is good for the government as well as the organizations.  It is also good for those politicians and our country.

I would go further and decouple all governmental political appointments from party positions.  Ministers as well as political appointees to statutory bodies and government-linked companies must give up their party posts upon assuming office.  Party officials cannot simultaneously hold government appointments.

With all the problems facing the country, being a minister would challenge the skills of even the most accomplished executive.  To do justice to the position would consume all of one’s time and energy, with little left for family and friends, let alone for such extraneous activities as heading the national Silat Club or leading the party’s division.

Such decoupling would also diffuse power and simultaneously create some semblance of checks and balances.  Cronyism and corruption are less likely to happen when power is not concentrated.

In a similar fashion, I would discourage members of the royalty from heading public organizations such as universities and the Football Association, except as patrons and symbolic heads.  A few may be eminently qualified to lead these bodies, however, because of the still strong feudal influence in our society, they cannot be fully effective.  Those under them are unduly deferential and would be consumed with royal protocol.

Even highly educated academics cannot escape this feudal mindset.  Nearly all our public universities have sultans or members of the royalty as chancellors.  I am surprised – and appalled – to see otherwise confident and authoritative professors genuflect and become excessively deferential in the presence of the royalty.  A board meeting chaired by a sultan would have minimal meaningful, much less robust discussions.  Everyone would be concerned with being “proper.”  Little would get done.


Reforming UMNO Through Decoupling

In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I suggested that decoupling of governmental from party positions would be one effective way to groom new talent and in the process rejuvenate UMNO.  The current concentration of power within the party not only contributes to corruption and the party’s rot but it also unnecessarily constricts the development and grooming of new talent.

          Decoupling would immediately open up many more channels and opportunities for junior leaders to ascend the party hierarchy and to prove themselves.  Currently, a minister can be the head of the party’s wing as well as being a member of the Supreme Council.  Additionally he or she may lead some governmental corporations or civic organizations.  Similarly, a chief minister is not only the state’s chief executive but also chairman of the state’s development corporations, UMNO state liaison, as well as chair of the capital’s municipal council.  Each of these positions, properly executed, would demand the fulltime attention of a seasoned executive.

          At the federal level, if ministers were not members of UMNO Supreme Council, that body could serve as the party’s oversight committee for ministers.  This would give yet another level of accountability, apart from Parliament.  The Supreme Council could also be the training ground for future ministers, or be a place where former ministers (provided they get voted by the delegates) could advise their successors.  If party leaders could demonstrate their talent running the party, then they could be trusted to run the country.

         At present, the concentration of power and positions among few individuals limits the upward mobility of young talent.  As a result, there is much Machiavellian scheming among junior leaders for the limited leadership slots, giving rise to unhealthy competition.  In such an environment, cliques and warlords develop, to the detriment of the party as a whole.

         Ministers cannot fully commit themselves to their ministries if they have to worry about maintaining their party positions.  Nothing gets done in government in the year preceding UMNO party elections; the ministers are too busy campaigning and giving speeches to divisions.  It is also the season for money politics, and for ministers to utter idiotic statements, all in the pursuit of party votes.

With ministers and chief ministers wielding too much power, corruption is inevitable.  With the diffusion of power through decoupling of government and party positions, ministers would be answerable to party leaders.  For corruption to take place in such an environment would require the collusion of many individuals.  One of them may squeal if he or she does not get a fair share of the loot.  That is the best deterrence against corruption.

Value of Sports

What triggered the recent cabinet decision was the abysmal performance of the national soccer team.  The rot however is not restricted only to that sport.  Malaysians yearn for the glorious days of yore when the national badminton team was the perennial champions.

As in many countries, soccer is a national obsession in Malaysia.  Consequently, the Football Association is headed by luminaries like the Sultan of Pahang, his crown prince, as well as assorted political hangers-on and wannabes.  There is also a cabinet minister.  The only talent lacking, and what the organization desperately needs, is someone knowledgeable about the sport and its business.

The nation loses out in multiple ways from such amateurism and incompetence.  For one, the nation misses the opportunity for collective pride when the national team fumbles.  Two, such organizational and team failures discourage the development of the sports.  When our national team excels internationally, such victories inspire the young to participate in the sport.  I remember the 1950s when our badminton squad ruled the world.  Every village had its own badminton courts and leagues.  Such grassroots participations are important in the discovery and development of new talent.

Three, sports, like music, transcends race, class, and culture.  The rich as well as the poor, blacks as well as whites (also brown and yellow!), and natives as well foreigners adulate sports heroes.  This aspect alone should inspire Malaysia to ensure that its sports organizations function well.  Sports are powerful instruments to enhance national unity as well as international peace.  The Iraqis may be at war with each other, but when their soccer team won the Asian Cup, all Iraqis celebrated.  It was a rare and much needed display of unity and communal celebration for a nation in turmoil.

Sports also provide major avenues for the talented poor to escape their economic lot.  In America and elsewhere, more poor minorities become millionaires through sports than through any other pursuits.  Sports could do the same for poor Malaysians.

The economic benefits extend beyond the athletes.  Professional sports in any country are multibillion-dollar industries and major contributors to the economy.  There is no reason why soccer and other sports cannot do the same for Malaysia.  Such economic benefits accrue even when the “stars” are foreigners.  Consider Formula One’s impact on the local economy, specifically tourism.

Before we can reap these benefits, our sports organizations – professional and voluntary – must be competently run.  They are just too important to be made into playgrounds for ambitious politicians and members of the royalty.

Encourage Five Million Malaysians To Register To Vote

Friday, August 10th, 2007

Encourage Five Million Malaysians To Register To Vote  

 Din Merican


Dear Fellow Malaysians:

I thank you for your honest comments to my recent open letter urging our citizens to register as voters.

As we are about to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of our Independence, the single most worrying development is that over five million of our citizens who are eligible have not yet registered to vote in the coming elections.

They constitute nearly half of the already registered voters.  By having such large numbers of citizens not registering and thus unable to vote, we will never know with certainty how Malaysians would like our country to be run.

It would appear that there is cynicism, disillusionment, and disenchantment with politicians of all stripes in our country as well as with the state of the political economy.  All is not well to say the least.

We cannot blame politics or the politicians alone for this state of affairs.  Every Malaysian should put his/her shoulder to the democratic wheel.  We should simply not seek scapegoats.

It is a matter of deep regret that the Election Commission is doing very little to mount a national campaign to encourage these unregistered potential voters to register for the coming elections. This is a shameful blight on this important institution.

Both the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government as well as all the opposition political parties are equally to be blamed for the current state of affairs in our nation.  There is breakdown in law and order, abuse of power, corruption, and incompetence.  Education and health care have also declined.

It is also unfortunate that civil society organizations including NGOs have also not given this matter of unregistered voters the attention and importance it deserves.  They have not urged Malaysians to register as voters in the coming elections.

            Our mainstream media, print and electronic, with the exception of ASTRO have yet to do something to encourage these over five million eligible voters to register and vote on polling day.

             As for these millions of eligible voters who have yet to register, allow me to say this:  It is your parents through their sheer hard work and sacrifice who have brought you to where you are today.  They partook in every facet of nation building including taking the democratic process seriously.

How can we have a truly functioning participatory and inclusive democracy when a significant number of those above the age of 21 – a phenomenal over five million people! – do not vote for any party of their choosing?

Malaysians cannot continue to grumble, bitch or sulk if they fail to perform their elementary duty as citizens.  If they do not register and vote, they would have no moral leg stand on as they would have forfeited their basic human and democratic right to choose a government of their choice to deal with their concerns.

The current state of affairs after 50 years of our Independence is sad one.  There is deep unease among a cross section of the population, transcending ethnic, social and religious divide, over the state of our nation.  They include royalty and the common man and woman alike.

To a large extent, this is the result of public apathy.  Over successive elections, more and more Malaysians have not exercised their right to vote.  Today, this number has snowballed to a staggering over five million.

This is why our country today is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, with weakened institutions, especially the civil service, local governments (municipalities), and the Judiciary.  There is breakdown in the rule of law with rampant crime and corruption, as well as incompetence in governmental machinery at all levels.  We are plagued with environmental degradation (deforestation, pollution of rivers, and haphazard development), variety of social ills, and general economic malaise.

This state of affairs can be changed if we move away from a mono-ethnic civil service, police, the armed forces, and public institutions especially of higher learning.  We must draw strength and pride from our diversity.  These institutions must reflect our demography.

Government-linked companies (GLCs) must also do their part to correct their weaknesses, boost their efficiency, improve their bottom line, and enhance their global competitiveness.

These were some of the final thoughts of the late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas.  He brought them to my attention in our conversation soon before his death last January.  It was with great sadness in his heart and tears in his eyes when he recounted these ills of our nation.

Together with our Founding Fathers that included earlier opposition party leaders, your parents ensured the upholding of the Constitution.  They had a strong belief in and a commitment to building a united multi-racial Malaysia.

What is indeed sad is that a good number of the over five million unregistered voters are professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers, lecturers, accountants, bankers, and corporate executives.  They have become indifferent and cynical; they feel that they no longer can make a difference.

How can we as individuals make a difference?  If we add these individuals up, collectively we can make a difference.

At the same time, these are very people who complain endlessly about the mess that is our nation.  They do not realize that they would one day be parents themselves; they seem oblivious of the future of their children and the country.

This coming election, 50 years after our Independence, is all about showing respect to our Constitution and the national ethos as embodied in the Rukun Negara.

I once again appeal to and indeed plead with all Malaysians – parents, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and senior citizens –to give a hand to guide and encourage those over five million eligible voters who have yet not registered to do so and to vote on polling day.

This is a non-partisan appeal.  It is merely to ensure that an overwhelming majority of Malaysians eligible to vote will do so on polling day and that the coming elections should not be like others in the last 50 years.

In exercising our right to vote, we, individually and collectively, can make a real difference.  We must uphold our constitutional principles and the objectives of Rukun Negara so that we have a united country and a Bangsa Malaysia.

I repeat, please go out immediately to REGISTER, CHECK YOUR REGISTERATION STATUS, RE-CHECK IT TO BE SURE, and VOTE, rain or shine on polling day.

It is easy to register.  Go to the nearest or most convenient Post Office with your My-Kad or Identity Card and complete the simple form.  You could also do it at the nearest Election Commission Office.

Each of us have to act on an urgent and sustained basis.  Together we can win over the five million eligible voters who have not registered to vote to do so for the party and candidate of their choice.

Din Merican

(Din Merican is a senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace. He was recently named an adjunct professor of global business strategy and a board member of the newly formed University of Cambodia , Phnom Penh. Din Merican had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bank Negara Malaysia and Sime Darby.)

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #18

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

Chapter 4: On Being Competitive (Cont’d)

Microeconomic Environment Enhancing Competitiveness

The macro environment is important, but it is only the enabling condition. It is at the micro level where the nurturing environment is crucial for enhancing productivity. When individuals and companies are productive—creating increasing output for the same input—only then will this translate into increasing prosperity for that society.

What happens at the local level are eventually reflected nationally, both in economic and non-economic spheres. I illustrate this with the tin industry. Tin has been mined as early as the fifth century in Malaysia, with the element shipped to India for making bronze religious icons. The mining process was primitive—simply panning the tin-laden earth over water—and thus could be done by illiterate and unskilled coolies. Smelting too was equally simple. It was this simplicity in both mining and smelting that attracted hordes of unskilled immigrants from China in the late 19th century.

The industry changed substantially with technology, the vastly more efficient mechanized dredges introduced in 1912. Unlike the primitive hydraulic mining that was very labor intensive (employing thousands) but cheap, these dredges were very efficient but capital intensive (expensive). Only the colonial Brits could afford them, and only they had the skills to operate and manage such sophisticated operations. The far fewer but much more skilled personnel were consequently paid considerably more than the unskilled Chinese coolies. While the coolies barely survived and could only fantasize of someday returning to China, the British miners lived in luxury, frequented their clubs, and took annual Christmas vacations back in old England. They could do that as they were like the American rice farmers discussed earlier in being very productive. One British miner could produce as much tin as a thousand Chinese coolies; he deserved to be paid considerably more.

This had ramifications beyond economics. Those coolies, now displaced from the only vocation they knew, had to leave the mines. Some returned to China, others moved to the towns and tried other endeavors like petty trading. That helped diffuse the increasingly explosive social situation in these congested mines. As could be expected, such large concentrations of human beings created social problems like prostitution, gangs, and secret societies, not to mention the horrendous public health hazards.

Even though the industry employed far fewer workers, nonetheless the country benefited immensely, first by the vastly greater amount of tin mined with the highly efficient dredges, and second, in getting rid of the social pestilence at these overcrowded mines. This is important as most leaders today are obsessed with “jobs, jobs, and jobs.” In this case, losing thousands of unskilled mining jobs was good from all aspects.

Had the colonial government been consumed with such mushy liberal concerns as being “kind” to those displaced workers, and introduced rules preventing their retrenchment, the industry would forever remain hampered and inefficient. Worse, those unskilled Chinese coolies would be perpetually trapped. Because they were forced to leave the mines, they had to venture into other activities. A generation later, their descendents had the Malaysian retail market unto themselves.

The third consequence was the saving of the environment. Hydraulic mining was highly destructive, with entire hillsides washed away and the muddy effluent silting and polluting streams and rivers, with the residue creating dangerous quicksand and other unstable areas.

The focus must be on the all-important issue of increasing productivity; everything else follows from that, including the beneficial effects on society and the environment. There will be inevitable short-term dislocations as unemployment. The solution is not to block such productivity-enhancing innovations but to deal with the dislocations separately.

Imagine the consequences had those dredges been introduced a few decades earlier. For one, it would have obviated the need for bringing in hundreds of thousands of coolies from China, and the subsequent social and economic history of Malaysia would be far different. For another, the country would have been spared the devastating environmental degradations from hydraulic mining.

The microenvironment in which our mines, companies and other enterprises operate must be conducive to enhancing their productivity. We must not hamper productivity-enhancing innovations in the name of some dubious “do good” goals. If having those dredges meant having to bring in massive amounts of foreign capital and investments, so be it. In the long run, that would be far better than having massive migrations of people and the consequent social upheavals.

Next:  Porter’s Business Competitive Index (BCI)